Book Review: My Notorious Life

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Was it a crime to talk to my ladies? Was it a crime to give them information and medicines? Was it a crime to protect them from the dangers of childbirth? Was it a crime to unblock their supressions, to restore their catamenial rhythms, to protect them from ruin and the false promises and lusts of men?

Not in my book.

But the leathery books of the judicial whiskers who made the rules told a different story. In their pages it was a crime to interfere at all with the machinery of a female enceinte. (Axie Muldoon)

My Notorious Life is the (splendid) fictitious tale of Axie (Annie) Muldoon, based on a real-life person in New York society. It is a terrific tale and one I had a hard time parting with throughout my time reading and even now after I’ve long closed its pages.

My Notorious Life begins in 1880 with a mysterious body left dead in the bathtub of the sprawling, well appointed home of Annie Jones, or Madam Debeausacq  as she infamously known. Annie discovers the body and works quickly to use this unidentified female as a way to escape her pending trial and jail time.  The body remains unidentified until the very last chapters, and the reader is brought back twenty years to 1860. Here, we find a young Annie living a life in extreme poverty on the streets of New York with her younger siblings Dutchie and Joe.

The life of poverty and the plight of the hundreds upon hundreds of children left to scrape an existence in the streets is so well described and with such rich detail it is as though you can see it, smell it and perfectly visualize the extent of what severe impoverished lives so many lived. While begging for scraps of food, a man approaches the siblings and lures them back to their tenement with the offer of more bread. Seeing the state he’s already well too aware of that Annie and her siblings live in, he convinces their mother to hand them over to ride the orphan trains west, where surely they’ll be provided with better living arrangements.

Unfortunately, after arriving in Illinois, Annie is separated from her dearly beloved Dutchie and Joe. They are placed with other families and Annie, always the wild and hardscrabble kid is left without a permanent home. Along with another one of the orphan train riders, Charlie, they leave Illinois together to go back to New York. Annie is rejoined with her mother, and makes many promises to reunite with Dutchie and Joe.

Already, life has moved on for Annie’s mother and she has now married another man and is heavily pregnant with his child. Unfortunately on the day she gives birth there is no one around to help and Annie’s mother dies soon after Annie delivers a baby girl, one that dies quickly as well. Once again left alone, Annie is taken into a household with a doctor and his wife, a midwife. Here, Annie comes to assist Mrs. Evans in her practice. It is only much later though when she is brought into the other side of Mrs. Evan’s practice as an abortionist.

The only constant in Annie’s life outside of her desire to reunite with her siblings is the boy that rode the trains with her – Charlie. Soon after Annie marries Charlie, Mr. and Mrs. Evans close up their practices and leave town. This also leaves Annie without employment and in despair for a life of continued poverty. On a whim one day, Annie decides to try and mix up the powders and pills for “females” and sell them in the market. Charlie, with his work experience at the newspaper, gladly jumps on board and they begin a fledgling business selling female remedies, soon amassing a healthy sum of money.

For some time, this keeps them content, and it is not until one night when Annie comes across an old friend that worked next door to Mr. and Mrs. Evans. Greta, has obviously fallen on terrible times and has a small boy with her. She is desperate as she is again with child and begs Annie to perform an abortion on her – just as she knows that she learned from her time with Mrs. Evans. Annie is horrified and very reluctant, but in the end, seeing how desperate Greta is, agrees to it.

From this moment on, their fledgling business takes a new direction and thrives. Annie also becomes more known as a midwife and in secret, an abortionist. Coupled with their production of pamphlets for female remedies, contraceptive practices and the mailing out of various pills and powders, they soon amass a great fortune. Here, Madame Debeausacq is born.

However, there are men such as the likes of men like Comstock that are vigilant in their crusade to rid society of these evil-doing women, like Madame Debeausacq. They work to convince the public she is performing the work of the devil. So pervasive are they in their efforts, even when Annie is reunited with her beloved Dutchie, her sister is horrified with the knowledge that she is an abortionist.

My Notorious Life comes full circle to the opening of the story with the identification of the mysterious body and what becomes of Annie and her family.  This is all done with wonderfully rich and splendid storytelling. The fascinating storytelling reminded me very much of Sutton and also with this storytelling, the context of the story reminded me greatly of The Virgin Cure. Also, the beginning half of this novel deals with Annie’s tale of being part of the orphan trains arranged by the Children’s Aid Society and therefore reminded me of Baker Kline’s novel, Orphan Train.  All three of those books are ones that I enjoyed immensely, and reviewed as such, so it should be of no surprise that I absolutely loved My Notorious Life.

Such an excellent read.  Such a “my kind of read”! As Emma Donoghue, author of Room is quoted on back cover, My Notorious Life is: “splendidly page turning“. Also, Whitney Otto, author of Eight Girls Taking Pictures proclaims: “My Notorious Life is a must read for anyone who likes their novels smart, entertaining and provocative.”

Whew, I think I did go on for a bit there didn’t I? But just as Otto and Donoghue say, this novel was a splendid and smart page turner. I highly recommend and actually haven’t stopped recommending it to my fellow Hoarders, Elizabeth and Jackie. I’m certain when they read it, this novel will easily become a triple-strike Literary Hoarder’s approved read.

Thank you to Netgalley and Scribner for allowing us access to My Notorious Life.